Sliding Around in the 2014 Buick Regal GS

We going snow sliding in Montreal.

It would be my chance to leave a Regal-shaped mark in a soft snowbank. Fun times.

An impact is always worse when you see it coming.

Slamming into a snow bank can be fun — when it happens on closed course. Nevertheless, as the 2014 Buick Regal GS AWD I was driving skidded towards the snow, with me counter-steering helplessly, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of embarrassment.

2014 Buick Regal GS AWD

2014 Buick Regal GS AWD

In 17 years of driving through Midwestern winters, my rate of incidents has been minimal, with only the occasional misstep during my relatively reckless teenage years. Other than a recent misadventure in Iceland, I am pretty confident in my ability to handle the fluffy stuff, regardless of what I’m piloting.

Buick intended to use this event as a way to demonstrate the Regal GS AWD’s ability to handle the white stuff, but perhaps the company proved that even a good all-wheel-drive (AWD) system can only do so much on ice, especially when the safety nannies are switched off — and especially when the driver is actively trying to break the car loose.

The event in question was a Buick production in which the company brought some members of the automotive media to a racetrack outside of Montreal to test the journalist’s snow-driving skills. There would be a timed autocross, a 1.6-kilometer track for untimed runs, and a figure-eight skidpad. All this would come a day after we trekked to rural Quebec to experience real-road driving in winter conditions, complete with some “donut and drift” time on an ice bridge over a frozen river.

I’ll start with the on-road experience. While skidpads and frozen racetracks are fun, we bet the number of Regal buyers who put their cars through the same exercises we did will be in the single digits. On the other hand, plenty of all-wheel-drive GS models will be sold in Snow Belt states, and what matters is how the system works in the real world, on frozen rural two-lanes and interstates.

2014 Buick Regal GS AWD

2014 Buick Regal GS AWD

The result: Decidedly mixed. The AWD system, which splits torque 50/50 between the front and rear wheels and redistributes it (both front and rear and side to side) as needed based on both drive mode and road conditions, performs like most others on the market — which is to stay it performs relatively well without the driver really noticing. Most buyers will probably never feel the system work, especially if they never turn off the traction control and anti-skid systems. My co-driver and I did slide a bit at times — even AWD has its limits when it comes to ice — but we thought the biggest problem was the 20-inch Pirelli Sottozero winter tires, which just didn’t seem up to snuff, especially during braking. We switched to a car with the same brand mounted on the standard 19-inch wheels for the second day, and noticed a marked improvement.

Part of the real-world driving included the aforementioned ice bridge. My drive partner, a Canadian who knew the roads, spent plenty of time drifting across the length of the bridge, while I simply contented myself with parking-lot donuts.

The second day was our chance to experience all-wheel-drive at its limits, and it would also be my chance to leave a Regal-shaped mark in a soft snowbank. Fun times.

The day started with a couple quick loops of a skidpad, with the idea being to “drift” the car around a circle of cones at the center. Immediately, I proceeded to do a donut, as I had on the ice bridge the day before, because donuts are just so much damn fun.

2014 Buick Regal GS AWD

2014 Buick Regal GS AWD

Drifting is fun, too, but much harder. Any hooligan can do a donut. But drifting requires a higher level of hand-eye — and foot-eye — coordination. The last time I tried to drift in a controlled environment was a few years back, on dry pavement, and I struggled to get the amount of throttle right. Too little gas, and the car’s tires would hook up — that is find traction, not engage in late-night, beer-fueled sex — and the car would drive straight. Too much, and I’d spin. Well, trying to drift on ice works the same way.

Which is why Regal met snowbank. Entering the second part of the figure-eight skidpad, drivers needed to turn in early and give the car enough gas to kick the rear end out. But I gave it too little gas as I turned in, then too much as I attempted to get the back end around, and combining that with the fact that the ground was pure ice, it was too late to get traction and save it. The car slid off towards the snow, before the front tires caught juuuust a bit, giving into understeer. Then, boof.

Thankfully, no harm was done to the Regal, since this was fluffy snow and not ice pack. I still needed a tow, though, since the front tires were buried and not enough torque went to the rear wheels to get the car out. Everyone got a good laugh, and the Buick engineer riding shotgun was completely unfazed.

Next up was a trip around a 1.6-kilometer track. Instructors weren’t timing us, the only goal was to keep the car from being embedded in a snow bank yet again. Spoiler alert: I would succeed in this endeavor, as would my drive partner. But that doesn’t mean both of us didn’t clip snow banks, either in search of a faster line or as a result of overindulgence in the gas pedal, and my drive partner committed an unspeakable act against a hapless traffic cone in pursuit of a quicker lap.

2014 Buick Regal GS AWD

2014 Buick Regal GS AWD

I found the track to be the easiest event, as it most closely approximated real-world driving, It was also easy to drive cautiously at first, gaining speed as I gained comfort. Two of the final corners were extremely tricky, though, especially since one was coated in ice. That right-hander was best taken by going as far to the inside as possible, but since the car was carrying speed out of the previous corner and there was little traction to be had, the car just kept going to the outside, thanks to the unbreakable laws of physics.

The autocross was next. Layout was simple — straight line acceleration, three-two-one braking zone, hairpin, left-right-left slalom. The trickiest parts were the launch and the hairpin. With safety systems off, the launch was difficult, as the wheels just spun uselessly under load. Understeer ruined the hairpin and forced one to be less aggressive in the slalom. With all systems off, I posted a 41-second lap — slower than the postal service.

Systems fully on, my time dropped into the 39-second range, which was mid-pack for our group of journalists (fair, since I’ve never been a great autocrosser), although a few hot shoes dropped into the 37- and 36-second range. Most of the improvement came from the launch — with traction control doing its job, the car accelerated towards the braking zone much faster. The hairpin was still tricky, but less so.

2014 Buick Regal GS AWD

2014 Buick Regal GS AWD

After lunch, we headed out for more fun in the snow. I’d hoped for another shot at the autocross, but the timing crew was MIA, so I headed back to the figure eight for redemption. I didn’t hit any snow banks this time, but I never quite got the drifting right. The trick was to turn in early, and smoothly give the car enough throttle to kick the rear end out. Easier said than done.  Either I gave it too little gas and I headed straight across the circle, or I gave it too much, thus either leading to a spin or a long slide toward the snow bank. Ryan Tuerck, I am not.

I followed that with one last blast around the track, trying to get the line just right. I ended up giving into my baser instincts and finished with a harmless spin due to over exuberance — I thought I could catch the Regal after I got it very, very sideways, but alas, I could not. The line between grip and no grip is thin, and I’d crossed it for one last time, in a very fun way.

GM’s goal, of course, was to show how well the Regal’s AWD system can handle snow and ice, and how the different safety systems affect a car’s behavior. This was old hat for most of us — any auto journalist who’s been testing cars for a while knows what happens when the safety minders are switched off on slick roads. What was far more instructive was the directions from the pros on hand on how to handle the car in certain scenarios — such as the drifting — both with and without safety systems. Even after driving through 17 Midwestern winters, including in older cars that didn’t have any modern safety monitors, it never hurts to have a refresher course.

And if I could learn to be a better winter driver while also learning about the GS’s AWD system without hitting anything of significance, so much the better. Sometimes going sideways is the best way to go forward.

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Written by Lewis Shaw

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